Home » Political Related » Multiculturalism & Interculturalism: Sometimes a Headline-Maker – POST 2 of 3 (#181)

Multiculturalism & Interculturalism: Sometimes a Headline-Maker – POST 2 of 3 (#181)

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This is the second post in a 3-post series putting the spotlight on Canada’s multiculturalism and Québec’s interculturalism.

Some of the controversial aspects of multiculturalism, interculturalism & reasonable accommodation.

In the last post, I provided an example in which society “accommodated“ a cultural request made by a Sikh man to have his turban incorporated into the RCMP uniform.  This was an example where society is prepared to (and does) accommodate, after some debate, cultural differences in a very public way.   It is a “sharing of public space”, for lack of a better term, for other cultures to practice their traditions or beliefs.  Within the context of multiculturialism and interculturalism, Canadian and Québec society accommodates such requests to an extent such requests are deemed reasonable.  There is a term for this:  “reasonable accommodation.” 

The term reasonable accommodation is actually a legal term, recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada.  It has also been the subject of major studies and inquiries into what kinds of accommodations are considered reasonable in Canada, and which accommodations push the limit of not being reasonable.

One could argue that the above question pertaining to incorporating turbans in Sikh uniforms is actually a tame debate with little controversy.

Yet, there are some areas of reasonable accommodation which can become much more controversial.  Society will always be debating these issues, either on a federal level with multiculturalism, or at a Québec level with interculturalism – regardless of what kind of government is in power, either federally, in any of Canada’s provinces, or in Québec.

Some of the more controversial questions which have arisen in the past few years are:

  • Whether the word “Christmas” should be replaced by the word “the Holidays” in diverse work places or schools,
  • Whether Christmas trees should be called “Holiday trees” insteat of “Christmas trees”,
  • Whether veils which cover the face (Muslim Niqabs, Burqas, or more rare Hindu duppatas) should be banned at citizenship ceremonies when pronouncing the oath of citizenship (this argument is currently making headline news right now in Québec with a Montréal resident challenging the federal government policy which bans them),
  • Allowing certain aspects of Sharia Law within areas of civil law as an option within provincial legislation touching matters such as marriage, divorce, name registrations, etc.
  • Rescheduling of hockey games so Jewish players do not have to play on Fridays

The controversial nature basically boils down to the following question:  To what extent should an overwhelming majority change long-rooted, very visible, historic and symbolic traditions and ways of life to accommodate rare or irregular requests made by a relatively small minority?   To what extent would such an “accommodation” be deemed “reasonable”?   After all, such changes could be significant and felt by all, and thus the question becomes controversial, involving everyone.

I find these debates interesting, and I understand the controversy.  I will say this; I do not have all the answers.  But the tendency over the last couple of decades, right up to the present, has been that Anglophone Canadian society, and Québec Francophone society both seem to hold the same view that an accommodation is no longer reasonable if it changes a tradition for everyone, and if that change would be major.

In the case of the Sikh police officer, accommodating a turban is not a major change which affects all police officers or all of society because other police officers are not forced or requested to wear turbans.  Furthermore, the wearing of a turban does not inconvenience or pose a burden to anyone else in society.

Regarding the question of renaming Christmas, I’ve noticed that society generally seems averse to renaming it at a “collective” or “societal level” (which is why television advertisements, public events, Christmas markets, etc. still, and will continue to call it Christmas).  However, when it comes to recognizing the holidays with respect to specific individuals, society is very comfortable and very willing to address it as Hanukah or other.  Schools in Canada seem quite comfortable teaching that the holiday season can mean different things to different people.  Everyone recognizes that the Christmas period may mean something different, and generally speaking, people do not take offense when wished a Merry Christmas, or Happy Hanukah, or Happy Holidays (which equally encompasses New Years and other religious festivals).  I personally have numerous Muslim friends who celebrate Christmas, wish me and others Merry Christmas, as do I to them, and these same Muslim friends also put up a Christmas tree in their homes.

The renaming of Christmas trees has proved itself to be more controversial.  There have been some towns and schools in Canada which have officially renamed their town or school Christmas tree a “Holiday tree”.  But public backlash has been swift and loud.  Those same towns and schools have backtracked (and I have not seen this come up again as an issue in the last couple of years, likely as a result of the initial public backlash a few years ago).   Unlike the “Holiday season” debate, the “holiday tree” debate generates more emotions, and society appears to be less inclined to bend to (or “accommodate”) the wishes of a very small minority which advocates the renaming of Christmas trees.  I would venture to say that the majority’s public backlash is owing to the fact that the renaming of a Christmas trees to accommodate the request of a very small minority, and it would alter, for the vast majority, a major deep-rooted tradition of the majority, dating back many generations.

In the case of faces having to be visible and unveiled during citizenship ceremonies, the Conservative government has said they will not bend on their (and the Citizenship department’s) policy decision.  Judging from what I’m seeing in the media, it appears that public sentiment is on the side of the Conservative government and the department.  I would venture to say (although I could be wrong) that other political parties, including the Liberals and NDP, would also uphold the same policy considering public sentiment seems to be in favour of an unveiled and visible face when the oath of citizenship is recited.  This sort of public sentiment likely stems from the sense that citizenship oath is a value shared by almost everyone (majorities and minorities alike), and thus it is “reasonable” that everyone must be held to the same standard.

A number of years ago, there was a proposal in Ontario to allow Sharia Law to be applied for very narrow matters in civil law, such as marriages, divorces, etc.  It would have only applied in cases where the parties involved specifically asked for Sharia law to be applied.  Yet, the public’s voicing against this modification was swift and hard.  The public would not tolerate this, and the provincial government retracted its proposal.

In the example of hockey games being rescheduled to accommodate Jewish players who would not play on the Sabbath (Friday & Saturday), this was actually a question which arose in Québec a few years ago.  A Jewish forward on the Gatineau Olimpiques hockey team refused to play on Fridays or Saturdays.  Yet the team and the hockey league would not reschedule its games considering that it would alter the entire season for everyone for the sake of one person’s practices.  In this case, the accommodation of the majority outweighed accommodating a very small minority.  In this example, I’m not sure that the player in question actually asked the team to reschedule games, but regardless, the public’s reactions to the player “withdrawing” himself from Friday games was sufficient for the team to assert it would not reschedule its matches.  The matter was settled in the end by way of the team giving an ultimatum to the player:  decide to play Fridays and Saturdays, or leave the team.  However, there was actually an accommodation; the team said they would tolerate (accommodate) the players’ withdrawals from Friday/Saturday games for one season only, for the sole purpose of allowing the player to decided whether to stay or leave upon arrival of the second season.  This accommodation was considered a reasonable temporary measure in light of everything.  In the end, the player agreed to play on Fridays and Saturdays, with the exception of three days a year during Yom Kippur – an agreement which was acceptable to all parties.

Is “reasonable accommodation” a zero-sum game?

Is reasonable accommodation a zero-sum game? (ie: Is it a question that someone or a group is 100% accommodated, or not accommodation at all?).   The answer actually is: “It depends.”   Multiculturalism and interculturalism are flexible enough to be adaptable to what is in the best interest of society, while being able to take into consideration the requests of the minority (in essence, that is also a definition of democracy:  Majority rules, but with respect to minorities).

The above cases contained some examples of zero-sum solutions, but also of compromise (on the part of both parties) when exploring possible accommodations.   It was zero-sum in the case of Sharia Law in Ontario.  Officially renaming “Christmas trees” with “Holiday trees” also appears to be zero-sum (there is just no appetite in Canada to go down this road).

But in a couple of the above cases, we could see a part way compromise having been reached.  The hockey player on the Gatineau hockey team is an example.  At first, it looked like it would be a zero-sum solution (accept to play weekends, or leave the team).  But in the end, Yom Kippur was the most important event in the calendar year for the player, and the team agreed that granting three days off for the event would not be unreasonable.

Another one of the above cases also has the potential to reach a part-way compromise.  This one concerns the question of reciting the citizenship oath with an unveiled face.   For many facially veiled Muslim women, it is acceptable to show one’s unveiled face to another women (be it family, or sometimes female strangers), males in the family, or authority figures when the situation calls for it.  The problem arises for such women when strangers in the public can see their faces (particularly males).  My personal guess (although I have no way of knowing if this will happen), is that in the coming weeks or months, we may see a part-way accommodation reached.  I would not be surprised to learn that facially veiled women may be allowed to stand at the back of the room with their face facing the citizenship judge at the front of the room during the citizenship oath – at which point she could be required to remove her veil so as to allow the Citizenship Judge (either male or female) to see her face during the oath, and then quickly re-veil after the oath is recited.  Because she would be standing at the back of the room, behind everyone else, facing the front, nobody else in the room would see her face.    We already have similar accommodations in Canada with respect to driver’s license photos.   A person’s face must be unveiled in the photo, but the taking of photos of facially veiled women is done behind a divider, outside the view of the general public (and thus only the person taking the photo, and only a police officer viewing a driver’s license, would see the unveiled face).  In return for allowing such an accommodation, the person in question agrees to these part-way terms, and may even have to agree to have a male authority figure preside over the citizenship ceremony or take a photo.  Give-and-take can equal reasonable accommodation.

So as you can see, on the reasonable accommodation front, multiculturalism and interculturalism can be black and white, or they can include many shades of grey.   It really depends on the issue at hand and what society is comfortable with.  But that is the beauty of it:  multiculturalism and interculturalism rarely venture into accommodating measures which would be deemed “unreasonable” for Anglophone Canada or Québec societies (at least I hope they wouldn’t).   And what’s more, 99.99% of the time, both Anglophone Canada and Francophone Québec agree on what is considered “reasonable” and “unreasonable”.

I’m trying to think of specific instances where there may be differences between what Anglophone Canada and Francophone Québec deem to be “reasonable” and “unreasonable”, but I am having a difficult time thinking of any.  I can think of some one-off examples – such as a gym in the Outremont area of Montréal having frosted its windows to accommodate Hasidic Jews walking by on the sidewalk, but these latter examples do not reflect “society’s” views at large — Rather these types of examples were decisions taken on the part of individuals (ie: an individual gym manager made a decision to frost the gym’s window — it was not a decision taken by Québec’s or Canada’s societies, and thus it was not an issue that had anything to do with official multiculturalism or interculturalism).  I suppose the fact that I cannot think of any such differences – and I know both Anglophone and Francophone cultures quite well – denotes that both societies truly do think very much in the same mindset on these issues.

Where might this all be heading as Canada and Québec continue to diversify?

The above scenarios are just a few examples among others which have been the subject of public debate.  As Canada continues to diversity, I’m not sure to what extent such debates will continue to surface or will continue to be relevant.  I suppose there are two ways to look at the issue:

  1. On one hand, the more diverse Canada becomes, the more Canada’s population may come to believe that there is increased value in preserving long-standing traditions for the sake of retaining “historic traditions” in and of themselves. One could argue that Canada would be a less culturally rich country if certain historic traditions were eliminated or permanently altered.  It may come to be that all of Canada’s diverse communities may increasingly unite with the majority to preserve historic traditions in Canada, even if they are not traditionally in part of various communities’ own historic traditions.
  2. On the other hand, an increased diversification of cultures may see an increase of older Canadian traditions going by the wayside or changing over time. But be careful before you jump to conclusions:  One could also argue that this is a natural evolution as any society changes.  This is why traditions celebrated in Canada in 1600 may have ceased to be celebrated by 1800 (before Canada’s population began to diversify).  Likewise, traditions celebrated in 1950 may not necessarily be celebrated in the same manner in 2050 (both dates are not that far from where we are right now, but it is still a 100 year spread, a period in which one would expect there to be a natural series of changes in traditions).   Yes, Canada’s increasing diversification may play a contributing factor in such changes.  But even though it may play a role in accelerating certain changes, we need to be aware that diversification and reasonable accommodation may not necessarily be the root cause of such changes (owing to the fact that traditions evolve and change regardless of whether a society is diverse or not).

In the next post, we’ll tie together the last two posts, and funnel it down to how this is relevant in Québec, and Québec’s place in Canada.  It’s an interesting topic, and I hope to see you for the next post.




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